Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (December 15, 1831 – February 24, 1917) — Teacher, Abolitionist, and Social Welfare Reformer


Editor’s Note: The major portion of this entry was written in the “present tense” by Charles Richmond Henderson (1848 – 1915) a notable prison reformer. Henderson’s first book was, “An Introduction to the Study of the Dependent, Defective, and Delinquent Classes,” which appeared in 1893. While the book in its original form has long since passed out of print and out of date, yet it formed an important landmark in the development of practical social science. It was the first serious attempt in America to present a complete view of the work of society along charitable and corrective lines. The new note that it struck was its emphasis upon the fact that all the interests of society were affected by the existence of the depraved and unfortunate classes, and that therefore the work in their behalf was a social task which must be shared by the whole community.

The Introduction was copied in large part from the Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America, Walter I. Trattner, Editor, Greenwood Press, Inc., 1986, p.654.


Franklin Benjamin Sanborn
Photo: Public Domain

Introduction: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn was born in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, the fifth of seven children of Aaron and Lydia (nee Leavitt) Sanborn.  Aaron Sanborn was a farmer and town clerk, and was direct descendant of New Hampshire settlers of 1640. From 1852 to 1855, he attended Harvard College.  During his college years, Sanborn was strongly influenced by Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  They encouraged him to move to Concord, Massachusetts, after graduating from Harvard.  In Concord he began a private school, mostly for Emerson’s children. He lived in Concord for almost all of his adult years and was affectionately nicknamed “the Sage of Concord.”

Charles Richmond Henderson’s Description: Franklin Benjamin Sanborn was born in New Hampshire Dec. 15, 1831. A descendant of some of the most remarkable New England families, he is a fine representative of the qualities that made those early settlers famous. A rare union of simplicity and courtliness, a combination of profound learning and brilliant wit, helped by a phenomenal memory, he is still, as he has been all these long years, an interesting, influential and delightful personality. Tall and handsome, with striking features and a head of thick brown hair, he is sometimes referred to as the idealized “Brother Jonathan.”

His whole life a student, from the days when as a lad he spent his pocket money in buying a copy of Hudibras, through college and in travels in Europe, he has the acquirements for a ready writer, and during recent years he has been known rather as a maker of books and an editorial journalist than as a reformer, yet there has never been a time when his energies have not been directed toward bettering the conditions of those who need aid, the negro, the Indian, the woman who had no champions. But for a quarter century he was officially connected with the work of public charity and correction in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. When the board of State Charities was organized in 1863, he was made its first secretary by the appointment of Governor John A. Andrew. So admirably did he fill that position that he was reappointed in various offices for nearly a quarter of a century. In connection with his work, he was instrumental along with Dr. S. G. Howe and others in establishing the Clarke School for the Deaf at Northhampton, of which he has been manager for forty-two years and which ranks as one of the best schools of the kind in the world.

Not only were the insane, the dependent and the infant children among the wards of the state whose care came under the oversight of Mr. Sanborn, but he visited and reported on all the prisons of the state and many in other states. His reports embodied much besides mere dry statistics and he has the credit of first telling to the American public the story of the work of Captain Maconochie and Sir Walter Crofton in prison reform. Through his interest in this subject he came early into sympathetic touch with Mr. Z. R. Brockway, an intimacy which has only been strengthened by the lapse of more than forty years. One of the pleasures of the International Prison Congress will be to see together two of the three men who were on the committee which drew up the famous Declaration of Principles, which was adopted by the Cincinnati Prison Congress in 1870. This Declaration is to penology what the constitution is to the United States government. All wise prison reform in this country can be traced to that document.

From that day to this the facile pen of Mr. Sanborn has been busy in helping to spread the principles that were there embodied.

In recognition of this position as a leader in reform movements Mr. Sanborn was elected president of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, in 1881 when it convened in Boston. As secretary of the Social Science Association for many years he guided that body with great success. But though his reform-loving mind has led him in many directions, yet in no field has he exercised a more constant influence in penology.

Source: Henderson, Charles Richmond. Papers, [Box 2, Folder 10], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library




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